Sunday, 29 May 2016

Carl Mollins: Renaissance Man

photo by Dora Maus

Carl Mollins was one of the greatest reporters who ever set foot on Parliament Hill, or in any news bureau for that matter, but you'd never know it if you had him as a journalism professor.

"I'm not sure why you bothered to take this class," he told us on the first day of our Carleton University fourth year political reporting lecture. "Oh well, you're here now."

Then he began to drop phone book sized copies of the Government of Canada Part Three Spending Estimates on the table in front of us.

"Your first assignment is to find a story in this."

And he chuckled.

That was Carl's Way. He wanted to make sure we knew that a side of Parliament Hill baloney was best served over-cooked and cold. This was no ant's picnic; it was bloody hard work combing through the lies, half truths and secrets that abounded on the Hill. And it was boring spending hours at committees and hearings that left us asking, "Where's the beef?"

As a result of his less than scintillating style, there were a few drop outs over the coming weeks, people who didn't have the stomach to study balance sheets, and order papers, but the geeks who stuck it out realized they had encountered a vein of pure gold in a man who vaguely resembled a Muppet.

This was the mischievous man of mystery, as we would come to know him. Carl was the person who invented the word droll. His idea was to get rid of the riff raff, so we could get on with the fun stuff.

After a couple of sessions, Carl ditched the Arts Tower, and convened our class
in the lounge of the Parliamentary Press Gallery which was located in the National Press Building, where we could smell the vapors of the press club below us. After class, he treated us to a beer, my first served to me at the long bar by the legendary Denny Tang. I'm not sure I should thank Carl or curse him out for getting me hooked on the Club.

After my first encounter there, it was the only place I wanted to be.

He introduced us to a few strays at the bar, the over-refreshed lot who were still there from lunch time. (Our class met at 4 p.m.) Then we headed into the games room for some serious political discussions. To us, the green meanies, we were in the thick of it. It was so exciting to talk politics, drinking beer, looking out at the West Block. Some of us were hooked.

Carl didn't believe in the theory of journalism, wasn't of the ilk of Tom McPhail or Wilf Kesterton. He wanted to give us a hands on experience.

He took us over to the Supreme Court where we met Bora Laskin, the Chief Justice, who gave us a spirited talk about the role of the courts in the lives of Canadians. We had many guest speakers, including the biggest talker of all, the Speaker of the House of Commons who met us after Question Period, still dressed in his robes. Carl certainly had connections.

As a person, Carl was kind and thoughtful, a walking beard of a man who had a deep understanding of journalism and politics. He was also pretty jaded about the life we were all about to enter. With the very odd exception, he said, we wouldn't get rich, we wouldn't get coddled, and we certainly wouldn't be important or famous -- or even get credit. Hell, we'd be lucky to have a few sheckles left for our retirement.

That wasn't the point of it. The point was that we had the sacred duty not just to get it first but to get it right. We were the eyes and ears of the people of Canada.

And none of us should ever forget it.

I was sad to hear that he died this week, after a tragic fall, on his daily walk along Toronto's lakeshore. I enjoyed being his friend on Facebook, and seeing all of the wonderful pictures of Carl, his wife Joan, his friends feasting around the dining room table, or of him walking around the Big Smoke in his tweed cap.

Carl Mollins was a throwback to another era where every meal was an event, every beer tasted as good as the first, and every experience was to be savored.

He was 84, and he wore it well.

I haven't seen him in decades, but I will miss him and thank him.

He gave me an A just for showing up, and showing an interest.

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